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Kristina Mandy, Assistant Conservator, takes us through the cleaning of Monticelli's 'A Vase of Wild Flowers', and reveals the parallels between Monticelli and Van Gogh's styles: 

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Why was this painting chosen for conservation treatment?

We decided to clean ‘A Vase of Wild Flowers’ because the varnish layers on the painting had discoloured and become cloudy, masking the bright colours that Monticelli used, and the sense of depth in his paintings, as well as the visibility of the underlayers, like the wooden support and dark red sketching layer.

It is possible that some of the earliest layers of varnish were applied by the artist himself, but the later varnish layers have obscured the intended effects. As we know that vibrancy of colour was important to Monticelli, we think the condition of the painting had changed to a degree that it no longer looked as he would have intended, and the decision was made in consultation with curators and scientists to reduce the disfiguring varnish layers.

Image: Adolphe Monticelli, 'A Vase of Wild Flowers' (probably 1870-80) pictured during cleaning, with visible light.

Is there any risk involved in cleaning the painting?

There is a degree of risk in cleaning this painting because of the sensitivity of Monticelli’s materials – his experimentation with his paints included mixing resinous materials into nearly all of the many layers, making them sensitive to the solvents we normally use to reduce varnish layers on paintings. However, we think that with this careful technique, the gain to the appearance of the picture is very significant.

What does 'impasto' mean? 

'Impasto' is an Italian word, used to describe areas of the surface of a painting which are heavily built up with paint layers.

We used raking light to illuminate the painting from one side, so it was easier to see the painting's surface textures, including the raised areas of impasto. 

Image: 'A Vase of Wild Flowers' taken before cleaning, with raking light, showing the painting's surface texture and areas of impasto.

What is optical coherence tomography? 

Optical coherence tomography (OCT) is a light-based examination technique providing high resolution cross-sectional views of objects which moderately absorb and scatter the probing light. The technique is non-contact, non-destructive and does not require any preparation of the object examined and is also used as diagnostic technique by ophthalmologists to look at the layers of the retina at the back of the eye.

Find out more

You can find out more about our research into Monticelli and his work in the National Gallery's Technical Bulletin article, 'The Materials and Techniques of an Unfashionable Artist' (Vol 33, 2012).

Watch previous episodes in the series:

Restoring an 'undisplayable' painting: Part two
Kendall Francis and Larry Keith discuss the restoration of a work with a 'snowstorm' of painting loss
Larry Keith reveals an exciting discovery about Piazzetta's unfinished work, 'The Sacrifice of Isaac', and explains the plan for the painting's restoration
Restoring the Gallery's oldest painting
Kristina Mandy shows the steps involved in restoring a painting that is over 750-years-old
Restoring Botticelli's 'Adoration of the Kings': Part one
Jill Dunkerton and Britta New find out what was hiding beneath a frame for nearly two centuries
Restoring Botticelli's 'Adoration of the Kings': Part two
Watch Jill Dunkerton as she retouches a Renaissance masterpiece
Restoring Botticelli's 'Adoration of the Kings': Part three
Jill Dunkerton and Marta Melchiorre ask, how can we identify Botticelli's hand from that of his assistant, Filippino Lippi's?
The Gallery during lockdown
Peek behind our closed doors, with Larry Keith
Cleaning Rubens's 'Het Steen'
Find out what Larry Keith discovered when he removed 75 years’ worth of discoloured varnish from Rubens’s 'Het Steen'
A structural repair of Rubens's 'Het Steen'
How will Britta New meet the challenge of repairing Rubens's fragile panel which has survived centuries' worth of restorations and one very severe frost?
Retouching Rubens's 'Het Steen'
After months of restoration, Larry Keith unveils the newly retouched 'Het Steen' in the Conservation Studio
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